by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & ere's a sports quiz: Which local college team this season defeated Oregon State (twice), WSU, UCLA, Virginia, Rutgers, Michigan and Navy? Answer? The Gonzaga University freshman eight crew. The school's varsity eight boat also posted an excellent record in 2008, including a win over Virginia. Both crews were West Coast Conference champions. The 2008 varsity boat finished the season ranked 19th in the nation, and was in the top 20 all year. Three rowers made the All-WCC team.
Last Tuesday both crews received their reward when the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA), which crowns the champions for men's rowing and which hosts the oldest and most prestigious regatta in America (dating from 1895), announced it had invited both Gonzaga boats to its tournament, which begins today on the Cooper River in New Jersey near Philadelphia. It's the first time both GU boats had been invited to compete.
Success for rowers doesn't come easily. Six mornings a week during the fall these intrepid young men (and one woman) stroke up and down the Spokane River. They continue throughout the bracing month of November when the gray skies set in and the temperatures drop. They break in December and January, but they're back on the icy river again in February, and then, after spring break, they move out to Silver Lake. Cold? Hot? Wet? They row as the postman walks: Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night will keep them out of the water.
One late May morning I'm out at Silver Lake to see for myself. Though their invitations haven't been extended yet, the two crews are readying for the IRA anyway. I ride in the launch with assistant coach Shawn Bagnall. His freshman eight are quarterbacked by his young, take-charge female coxswain, Crystal Huff. (The coxswain is the person who sits in the back of the boat, calling out instructions.) In practice sessions the coach communicates with her through a head set. Much like the ballet choreographer, Bagnall misses no detail: "Crystal, tell Benji to relax his shoulders." Then, another rower attracts his attention: "Tell Neil to swing his body back; watch the blades! Feel the catch!" "Crystal, really bouncy, too bouncy." "Quicker hands for Neil." "Crystal, don't let them be late on the roll up." And so it goes. Instructions given. Orders barked out. Corrections made.
The next day I am out on the lake again with both crews. They will work out together, but Bagnall is more concerned this day with his freshman rowers. They narrowly lost to highly regarded Orange Coast CC at the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta because the L.A. school, which had trailed the entire race, changed its stroke strategy, and Bagnall's less-experienced kids didn't pick it up in time to "attack" effectively. What had been a four-seat lead with only 12 strokes to go ended in a disappointing two-second loss. Bagnall must correct this problem before the IRA. So, today, he will have the crews race against each other: six exhausting 500-meter sprints, full of shifts -- from 35 strokes per minute to 37, then to 40 and finally to 42 or 44. It is up to the coxswains to call for the shifts and up to the strokes to pick them up. The shift must be precise. It must be smooth.
The two boats make their way to the starting line. Bagnall waits until both are at a dead stop. Then he stands in the launch and shouts: "Ready, all row!" Crystal Huff barks out her start order: "Three quarter, half . . . three quarter . . . full, full!" And they are off.
As the coxswains count strokes and make corrections, the two boats glide over the water at more than 16 miles per hour. A minute and 24 seconds later, having finished in a dead heat, an approving Coach Bagnall swings his launch in close and praises both crews: "That was very good."
The Intercollegiate Rowing Association national championship will run June 5-7 on the Cooper River in New Jersey.
The competition will include varsity and freshman four- and eight-man races. Gonzaga will be represented by its varsity and freshman eights. Washington State University will race a varsity four-man boat.
The races are 2,000 meters -- or about a mile and a quarter -- in distance.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he success of the Gonzaga men's crew begins with Dan Gehn, for 14 years GU's resolute varsity coach. Gehn, who a couple of weeks back won the WCC Coach of the Year award for the third time, came to Gonzaga from powerhouse Wisconsin, where he had rowed as an undergraduate then served as freshman coach. Bagnall joined Gehn six years ago and has guided the freshman eight to a spectacular season -- eight wins in 10 races.
The young men and one young woman they coach participate wholly out of love for the sport; Gonzaga has no scholarships for men's rowing.
So, how does GU compete with the rich, heavyweight programs such as the University of Washington? "We sell the school and the program," says Bagnall. "We can tell prospective students that at GU they will get a chance to row in serious regattas -- immediately." Gehn stresses the importance of "finding the right fit."
I put the same question to GU's highly recruited freshman stroke, Matt White: "I chose to come to Gonzaga rather than the UW," says White, "because I wanted the smaller class sizes and I wanted relationships with professors; also, I wanted to row." He goes on to say that of the eight kids on his high school championship boat who chose to go to major rowing schools (several to the UW), only three got into first boats their freshman year.
The future looks bright for the GU program. Bagnall tells me that of the eight rowers in the freshman boat, six were recruited. The varsity crew has five recruits and three walk-ons. "When we started 14 years ago," says Gehn, "we were lucky to get one recruit, and if we did he wouldn't be a kid off the first boat."
Support from the university has been growing. "The increases in recruiting and travel dollars have been very important," says an upbeat Gehn. "The East Coast wins are already paying dividends."
Bagnall, who oversees recruiting, tells me that usually this time of the year he is looking at maybe four inquiries from prospective rowers. This year? He has a pile of inquiries several inches thick. Gehn puts it this way: "We took a page out of Mark Few's book. To get national recognition you have to compete successfully on the East Coast."
And they did. With great success. Hats off to them all.
Robert Herold teaches political science at Gonzaga University.
COUGAR ROWERS TAKE EIGHTH AT NATIONAL MEET
Sunday was a day of strong finishes for the three Washington State University boats competing in the NCAA Women's Rowing Championships at the Sacramento State Aquatic Center, leading the Cougars to an eighth-place overall finish. The Brown Bears from the Ivy League won their second straight title. The University of Washington finished second.
All three Cougar boats -- the varsity eight, the second varsity eight and the varsity four -- were running in the Petite Finals races, for the boats that didn't qualify for the championship Grand Finals races.
The varsity eight boat sat in fifth place -- out of six teams -- halfway through the 2,000-meter race, then passed teams from the University of Southern California and Princeton to finish third, seven seconds behind race winner Harvard. Virginia finished second.
"The work [the team] put in consistently in September, October and November helped them in the third 500 of [the] race," said coach Jane LaRiviere afterward.
The second varsity eight boat also passed two teams in the last half of its race to finish second, less than a second and a half behind Wisconsin. The varsity four boat jumped to an early lead, fell behind eventual race winner Ohio State at the halfway point, then pulled away from Wisconsin in the battle for second place.
"(Today's showing) totally validates the strong season we had," said LaRiviere. "I think the future of Cougar rowing is bright."
The three Husky boats all raced in the Grand Finals races with the varsity four winning the national championship.